The Seattle Storm would’ve been forgiven for showing up to their first game back from the WNBA’s five-week Olympic break and not really doing anything more than that. They had practiced just once since the five Olympians on their team returned from Tokyo. Three of them—Breanna Stewart, Jewell Loyd and Sue Bird—had logged significant minutes on the U.S. national team that played in the gold medal game less than a week earlier; the other two, Ezi Magbegor and Stephanie Talbot, got to the quarterfinals with Australia’s women’s national team, the Opals. Meanwhile, Seattle’s opponent, the very good Connecticut Sun, had a grand total of zero Olympians and nothing to do for five weeks but rest up and practice for this game. Do you see where this is going? In the twist of the season, the Sun lost, badly, and so did jet lag. The very same Storm players who seemed liable to keel over from exhaustion dominated, and the reigning WNBA champions reminded everyone it will take a lot more than transpacific air travel to stop them from winning it all again.
The 79-57 game, Sun fans will be glad to know, doesn’t actually count in the regular season record. This is because it was the inaugural Commissioner’s Cup championship game, the culmination of a somewhat unintelligible “in-season competition” introduced this year and not explained very well to anyone. “I honestly don’t know anything about this Commissioner’s Cup, if you want me to be honest. I have no idea what it is,” the Liberty’s Sabrina Ionescu said at a postgame media availability early in the season. “I know that there’s some tournament, but I don’t—are we in it now?”
The way it worked was that a team’s first home and away games against a conference opponent were designated “Commissioner’s Cup games,” and the team with the best Commissioner’s Cup game record in each conference played in the championship game. Competition between the best team in the Eastern Conference and best team in the Western Conference used to be called “the WNBA Finals” before the league’s playoff format was revamped a few years ago and conference affiliation was made a relic, only useful for things like naming the Eastern Conference Player of the Week.
In addition to lending conferences a little meaning again, the championship was a test site for some gimmicks. The game aired, annoyingly, only on Amazon Prime. Both team’s players wore tracking devices that allowed the broadcast to show viewers “high-tech” animated replays in which all the players appeared as bionic figures. (How this was superior to a regular replay, I couldn’t tell you.) If there was a good and not tedious gimmick, it was the $500,000 prize pool, distributed so it came out to something like $30,000 per player on the winning team and $10,000 per player on the losing team. It was a decent amount of money for a player on a WNBA salary. Stewart mentioned her teammate, Kiana Williams, who’s with the Storm on a seven-day contract for now. “I think our teammates was the motivating factor behind this game. We wanted to win for them. Obviously 30K is 30K for all of us, but for some of them, it’s, I don’t even know what the ratio is for Kiana, but it’s a lot. To really help them get that is amazing,” said Stewart.
The Storm won thanks to Loyd’s 16 points, Bird bouncing back from a rough stretch at the Olympics to add 10 points and five assists, some solid contributions all the way down the bench, and a bad Sun shooting night. (Seattle outscored them 22-5 in the third quarter, and Jonquel Jones went an atypical 5-of-15 from the floor.) But it was Stewart, finishing with 17 points on 6-of-8 shooting, four rebounds, three blocks, three assists, and four steals in 27 minutes of play, who netted the extra bit of cash that comes with being named Commissioner’s Cup MVP.
Between the Olympics, last year’s WNBA Finals, and her play with overseas club UMMC Ekaterinburg, that is, incredibly, the fifth MVP title Stewart has won in the last 10 months, and the second she’s won in the last week. Seattle’s got a tricky schedule in the second half of the WNBA season, and another Western Conference opponent they’ll have to worry about come playoff time in the formidable Vegas Aces. But this woman does not lose.